Every chef has his or her own method of getting in the zone. For Nick Bajal? That entails cooking by himself with some old-school Motown or 90s R&B pumping in the background. After tasting his scrumptious creations, we say—whatever’s working for you, Nick, keep on doing it!
Nick first thought about becoming a chef during his senior of high school when he enrolled in cooking classes, and suddenly, a hidden talent emerged. He explains, “I turned out to be pretty good, and it felt natural to be in the kitchen.” He describes his career’s evolution as following “the more traditional route”—first attending culinary school and then completing stages at a variety of fine dining and Michelin-starred restaurants. Like so many culinary stars, he gradually worked his way up from prep cook to head chef.
Inspirational influences have been aplenty along the way. Nick says, “I have taken a lot from different chefs I’ve worked with throughout the years: from Chef Derek Simick letting me expand my horizons and take ownership of what I create, to Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos teaching me how to be a better leader and pushing me to be better every day!”
Having relocated to California from Chicago, Nick has great things in store for Outpost diners. He promises that guests can expect “the same great Latin/Asian-inspired street food and shared plates that [the restaurant] is known for,” yet he’s going to “drive into more specific areas like Korea and Puerto Rico to gather inspiration.” He also plans to make the most of the amazing, fresh ingredients available in California, presenting these coastal staples in a “new, fun way.”
After a long day on the job, Nick claims he makes himself “the quickest, easiest dish I can whip up…usually some type of grilled cheese.” And what does he crave during a rare day off? He says this means “someone else is cooking for me, and then I’m the happiest man ever and [I can] just sit back and enjoy!” Asked if he could cook for anyone, he easily answers David Chang, lauded chef/author/TV personality and Momofuku founder. He explains, “I really admire how he has built his empire on just making the best damn food he can and doesn’t care about what others think he should make.”
When speaking to what most excites him most about relocating to California, Nick exclaims, “the fresh seafood is so close!” However, he admits that he misses the sight of the Chicago skyline from the lake at night. “It will always be a part of me,” he comments.
When he’s not in the kitchen Nick likes to spend time in Santa Barbara’s Douglas Family Preserve with his girlfriend and dog Thor.
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, “Jibaritos”-Style
Serves 2 people
For the “plantain bread”:
- 2 whole green plantains
- 1 cup canola oil
- 2 cup pork fat
For the sandwich:
- 4 limes juice/zest
- 1 cup mayo
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- ½ tbsp salt
- ½ cup shredded Oaxaca cheese
- ½ cup queso fresco
- ½ cup shredded manchego cheese
- 1 cup pre-cooked pork carnitas
- 1 large tomato, sliced
To make the “plantain bread”:
- Peel the plantains and slice them lengthwise from top to bottom.
- In a large, deep cast-iron pan (or other heavy-duty pan), heat up the pork fat/oil mixture until it reaches 350°. Place the plantains in the fat and cook until tender, about 4-5 minutes on each side.
- Remove the plantains and place them on a heat-resistant surface. Leave the oil mixture cooking, but cover the pan with a splatter screen.
- Take an unheated frying pan or other flat-bottomed item and gently smash the plantains until they’re flattened. Make sure not to rip or tear the plantains – the goal is to shape them like long pancakes.
- Place the flattened plantains back in the oil and fry again until they are crispy, about 2 minutes per side. Remove and place on paper towels to cool.
Directions for the sandwich:
- Pre-heat a panini grill (or an oven at 400°).
- Zest and juice the limes. In a small bowl, gently mix the zest, juice, garlic powder, salt and mayo.
- In a separate medium-sized bowl, mix together all the cheeses.
- To assemble each sandwich, place a plantain on a clean surface and spread on the lime-mayo mixture. Add some of the pork carnitas and cheese mixture, then top with slices of tomato. Cover with the other half of the plantain.
- Brush the top with oil and place in the panini grill or oven. Cook until the cheese is melted.